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Hackers

Director: Iain Softley

USA - 1995

    Hoff! Hoff!     

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In response to the recent newsworthiness of some of its stars, the management deemed it finally time to release this review, commemorating the early work of so many great young people. Here’s to you, kids.

Ah, the modern age of computers. What a time to be alive! When Matthew Lillard can ramble on about the omnipresence of computers, all checking out our ID and various vital statistics while we spend the day watching TV and eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon, you know we’ve arrived. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Welcome to my high school experience.

This is a film about computer security and those who defeat it. I can imagine some of the planning meetings:

“Well, what’s hot these days? What can we make our movie about?”

“I hear that computer hacking stuff is really popular among the kids.”

“Hacking, eh? What’s that?”

“Oh, it’s where personal-hygiene-impaired computer geeks spend hours trying to figure out access codes to large computers, then they get in and make mischief.”

“Hours of socially-inept kids sitting in front of a computer screen? Hmm…”

As most of us should know by now, computer work is not particularly cinematic in the real world. While the fact of having an electron gun shot at your face SOUNDS exciting, in reality it just leads to eye cancer, over the course of years (except at this site and the rest of the B-Masters). Well, maybe not. Still, point being, movies about hacking, if done realistically, aren’t kinetic. Look at Wargames. It’s one thing to illustrate the effects of computer jiggery-pokery, as in The Net, but it’s another to make the actual process work.

Which explains why director Iain Softley decided to chuck the realistic approach and go for the music video style. It would be a better fit with the target audience for one, and for another, music montages are always easier to put together than, you know, an actual scene with dialogue and blocking and acting and all that.

This is not to say that Hackers isn’t a fun little movie, but it barely hints at the meritocratic ruthlessness that can define the hacker subculture, where you’re hardly anything if you don’t know just about everything. On the other hand, even Softley knew that you can’t carry a movie on just visuals and technobabble. So he inserts an extortion plot into the proceedings. For this, he needs a villain. So he goes out and hires Fisher Stevens.
Johnny’s uncanny weather preparedness extended indoors, as well.

Okay, get this. I love Fisher Stevens. He did a great impersonation of an Indian man in the Short Circuit movies (possibly the best thing in them, besides Ally Sheedy in the first one, of course), and I have enjoyed every episode of Early Edition with him in it that I have seen (too bad he left the series for its last season or two; I still enjoyed the series, but I missed him). He can definitely play a smart man, and I can believe him as an amoral man, but I really don’t know that I can buy him as the devious older hacker master villain. Maybe it’s the skateboard, maybe it’s the impotent gloating at the master control console of the supercomputer… I don’t know. Something just rings false. However, he does add those fun little touches; his monologues, his little comments, they are amusing all in themselves. Admittedly, maybe not funny in the same way that they originally intended, yet funny all the same.

Anyway, so with Fisher Stevens as “The Plague,” an elder hacker gone corporate with a devious little embezzlement plan of his own, and a bunch of young “hero” hackers, led by the nearly incoherent Matthew Lillard, we have instant drama.

Well, not really. It’s true that Stevens is the villain, and it’s also true that Lillard is in the posse, but as Odious Comic Relief™ with the hacker name “Cereal Killer,” rather than the leader. That honor is shared by Johnny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie. I do believe this is the movie on which set they met and fell in love, but I could be wrong. Miller plays a young man who was arrested as a child for crashing Wall Street under his previous nickname of “Zero Cool,” but has since grown up and moved to New York with his mom (Alberta Watson, who's been pro since 1975, and was in The Keep and The Soldier, and has since played Hansel's Mom in Hedwig and the Angry Inch), and has taken the new moniker of “Crash Override.” His immediate rival among the hacking community there at his high school is Jolie, under the name “Acid Burn.” Yes, “Crash” and “Burn.” And yes, they’re destined to be love interests. Duh.

And yes, these characters have real names, but quite frankly, they’re immaterial. The kids don’t use them amongst themselves, and when you find out their real names, it really doesn’t make an impression, really. So we’ll just call them by their nicknames. Oh, except for Cereal, who’s named Emmanuel Goldstein. I think I read that it’s supposed to be an homage to one of the early real hackers, but I’m not close enough to the subculture to get it.
Jump! Jump! Oh, somebody push him! Come on!

By the way, I don’t know why Matthew Lillard has to be such a raging spastic freak in the majority of his movies. Hackers, Scream, Wing Commander, even Scooby Doo… he’s supposed to be cool in most of those movies, but does he really come across that way? I think Mork had a smoother approach. Yeah, Robin Williams started out as a big freak like that, too, but he at least hinted at greater depth (though who could predict it would lead to full-on Schmaltz™ in his later years?). And Lillard doesn’t have the inexplicable Teflon™ coating that Wing Commander and Scooby Doo co-star Freddie Prinze Jr. seems to have; he can’t do stinkers and maintain his best-loved rising star status. My lovely and discerning wife isn’t quite to the point where she won’t go see a movie with Matthew Lillard in it, but it’s not too far off. I mean, he’s not Pauly Shore yet, but…

Okay, enough complaining.

So, with Crash, Burn and Cereal, we also have the Phantom Phreak (Renoly Santiago, aka Sally-Can't Dance from Con Air), a young Hispanic man who may or may not be intended to be gay. It often seems as such, but the young man’s sexuality is never exactly addressed, and quite frankly, I’ve known some flamboyant heteros in my time; being as this is supposed to be early ‘90s youth culture, I can see how he could swing either way. Maybe that’s it, actually, but if that’s so, they’re playing up the stereotype awfully hard. The fifth member of the posse is Lord Nikon (Laurence Mason, who I also liked in The Crow, even though he was a bad guy), the required angry young black man. A jolly pirate club, with jolly pirate nicknames. And oh, what an ethnically diverse group we have; black, Hispanic, Jewish, female, and white all banding together to fight the good fight, so to speak. Reminds me of the typical Hollywood street gang, in some ways, in that it’s a fairly obvious ploy designed to appeal to all demographics, but I also acknowledge that if anyone given social group is likely to ignore society’s race barriers, it’s probably hackers. Something about the equalizing influence of the Internet, combined with the meritocracy of general hacker society, which rewards accomplishment alone, regardless of other qualities.

There’s also a chain-smoking, caffeine-hyped, addiction-prone personality named Joey (Jesse Bradford, who despite being a throwaway character has a longer list of work than most of the others), who is there partially as comic relief and partially to actually get the plot moving. He’s a minor character, all things considered, but they put some important plot points in his hands, as well as an important part of the resolution of the tale. Not all of it, but a part.

Anyway, societal and plot considerations aside, we have the villain, the heroes, a faceless corporation as the eventual victim, and “The Man,” embodied in the character of Agent Gill (Wendell Pierce, also from Bulworth and Cursed (you know, the show that soon became The Weber Show, just before it was mercifully cancelled), the Secret Service agent in charge of computer crime for New York, apparently. The Plague makes liberal use of his services from his cover as upstanding corporate computer security expert (a good job for a reformed hacker, but it’s too bad he’s not really reformed). Penn Gillette also has a cameo in the beginning and end as a “hapless technoweenie.” Unfortunately, Teller is not in sight.
“Hello, Security? There's a little guy down here. He's just staring at me. He won't say anything!”

Incidentally, one of the only sympathetic Secret Service agents is Agent Ray, played by pop singer and personality Marc Anthony. Odd to see him playing a somewhat geeky authority figure, when he's rather smooth and cool on-stage. Just an observation.

Before progressing, we should all be aware that hacking is not an intrinsically destructive practice. It’s more motivated by curiosity and a desire to test skills. There are those that like to crash systems, write destructive viruses, and so forth; it’s my impression that the greater part of the hacker community despises these folks, those who would wantonly trash the very resource that gives them power. From what I’ve read, the more positive hackers are more likely to poke around a system, perhaps suggest some changes or upgrades; they generally are helpful, when they alter anything at all. Just like the rest of humanity, 90% of everybody is perfectly OK. It’s just that 10% that gives everyone else a bad name, doesn’t think out what they’re doing, endangers their own livelihood, etc.

Okay, so now to the movie.

The initial portion of the movie sets up the characters and setting in a practically Syd Field textbook manner. We see Zero Cool’s initial bust and sentencing, and then pick up with his transfer to New York. His court-ordered ban on using a computer expires, and he immediately kicks into high gear, having his first brush with a local hacker over control of a TV station’s automated programming machine. Apparently a decade out of practice has not reduced his skills at all; it’s amazing what you can do just by keeping up with the literature. This montage is where we both see Zero pick his new alias, Crash Override, but we also see that the newly-minted Crash is the slowest-typing hacker I’ve ever heard of. I mean, sure, we know they’re doing it slow so the audience can keep up with what he’s typing, but it really cuts that whole suspension of disbelief when you realize your ten-year-old cousin can hunt-and-peck faster than this guy can type. On the other end of the spectrum is Langley, from the defunct series The Lone Gunmen, who sits down at the computer, there’s a storm of key-taps rivaling “Flight of the Bumblebee” and sub-windows start popping up and cascading. Unreal fast versus unreal slow: you be the judge!

After that, he goes to high school, and meets up with the rest of the gang. It seems that this high school has very little in the way of a dress code, or maybe it’s supposed to represent the post-‘80s fashion rebellion. Whatever the case, between the leopard-print muscle shirts and the oddly-cut pleather jackets and such, all the hackers seem to be terminal faux-punk fashion victims. Burn (before he knows her nickname is Burn) ends up being cruel to him, prompting thoughts of revenge, only slightly offset by the obvious wicked hotness of the youthful Angelina Jolie. Phreak is the one who first notices Crash’s talents, as he does his research on Burn during computer class. Later, Phreak takes him under his wing as regards the local scene, introduces him to Cereal and Joey, and still later to Nikon. During the course of this, we go to a little dance club where the set designers went all out. I’d go to a youth club like that in a hot second, as opposed to the dank basements that basically comprise most hangouts the high-school kids can manage. He meets up with Burn and her pretty-but-dumb-macho-jerk boyfriend, and bests her top score at some weird video game played on a two-story screen with inexplicable animation. Like I said, the designers went all out. I bet if such a game existed in real life, it would take, like, $16.00 to play, but Crash just steps up and takes his turn. I wish I was in a movie.
The game that costs a week’s salary to play.

They also take this portion of the movie to introduce the hosts of the pirate TV show, “Hack the Planet,” two individuals named Razor and Blade (Darren Lee and Peter Y. Kim, though this is Kim's only movie to date). There’s something about dual names in this movie: Crash and Burn, Razor and Blade, Phreak and Cereal, Plague and Melanie, etc. Razor and Blade aren’t much more than a convenient plot development in and of themselves, and a way to introduce The Man by interrupting his news interview with their show (pay attention later in the movie to find the time continuum glitch), but their ambiguous behavior and hipper-than-thou attitude is neat, and they point out, in a background manner, the fascination that many hackers have with Japan and Japanese culture. Maybe it’s the techno-fetishism so obvious in the cartoon entertainment, such as the “giant robot” films and the hentai. Or maybe it's just the Japanese seem to be on the cutting edge. I don't know. I do know that if they were in Japan, and were being so individualistic in expressing themselves, they'd get hammered down like all the other nails that stand out. So I guess they're worshipping the ILLUSION of Japanese culture, then.

There’s a particular mode of thought that is common enough to warrant its own word (which I cannot currently remember), which is that some people believe that some things are better than other things merely because they are Japanese. A prime example would be martial arts; viewed objectively, Japanese-origin karate is no more intrinsically effective than hapkido, savate, muay thai, capoiera, or any of the forms of kung fu, because so much of a style’s effectiveness depends on the skill of the individual, and the circumstances of the conflict. But someone with this Japan-centered mindset would be convinced of the innate superiority of karate simply because it’s Japanese. Just a little factoid. Incidentally, if anyone out there is familiar with the specific term, let me know what it is, and I’ll work it into a review, with proper credit.

Now we have outlined the scenery, and the players are almost all on-stage, we start the complications. Joey, in his neophyte noodling around, stumbles across a fragment of a program hidden in a garbage file. This is expressed by a highly artistic but vastly uninformative graphic, which recurs throughout the film. Well, perhaps data is more easily interpreted in the universe of the movie. Yeah, that’s it. In any case, he doesn’t know what it is, but he downloads it, anyway, because he doesn’t know any better. This turns out to be dumb luck, on his part, because if he hadn’t been fumbling in the dark, if he hadn’t ignored the garbage file like an experienced hacker would likely have done, then the scheme would have unfolded as planned, and none of the players would have had their lives interrupted in the least bit. But that wouldn’t have made as interesting a film, I suppose. Nope, no room for techno-coming-of-age stories.
"What do you want now?!?! I’ve got an Elder Thing waiting in my pentagram!"

So the Plague gets called in, as the computer security guy for the corporation what owns the computer Joey’s exploring. Turns out the program is his, a little financial worm, hidden away where nobody is supposed to notice it, for the purposes of embezzlement. So, to cover his tracks, he writes up a horrible virus, sets it free in the system, and puts the Secret Service on Joey’s trail, accusing him of writing the virus. Bam! He’s in jail! I’ve got to complement the depiction of police action in this film, not just during Joey’s arrest, but throughout. It’s never really a SWAT team kind of situation, as far as violence goes, but there are numerous stormings of rooms, and it all seems to work well within the framework of the film itself. The arrest scenes are usually fairly entertaining, managing to often be disconcerting and yet amusing at the same time. It’s a tough balance to strike but Softley seems to do it fairly well.

The Plague also makes an appearance to Crash, revealing that he knows about the young man’s past in order to extort the snippet of data from him, reasoning that he is part of that circle, he will have access. Must suck to be the only person who has something an enemy can use to exert leverage. The Man goes along with this, because, you know, any means necessary to protect the computers of the corporate overlords from curious high-school kids. Never let it be said that businesses and governments were too paranoid bout their secrets; if you ask any authority figure, they’ll say they’re not paranoid enough. Though it’s okay for them to read your secrets. After all, just who is reading YOUR e-mail as a matter of course, gentle reader?

Over the course of this, Crash also enters into his rivalry with Burn, and they have a whole sequence where they have a competition, to harass The Man in revenge over Joey’s arrest, leading to amusement in the cleverness of the pranks (also illustrating the power computers have over modern society). Further, they do a thing right when they have the kids hacking from neutral locations all over the city. Not only does it allow for a visual treat, it also proves the point that you just don’t hack from home. Something you’d think Crash would have known, which makes his first adult hack of the TV station all the more odd.

Let’s see. Things are going well, the kids have made the Man’s life a bit more difficult while committing many felonies, and Crash has rebuffed the Plague’s offer to narc on his friends. Then Joey gets out of house arrest, and brings the disk with the fragment of file to the Phreak. I actually find it nearly impossible to think that any professional federal agent, or even a local cop trainee, would fail to find the disk where Joey hid it. I mean, come on. You’ll open up the seams on the couch cushions, but you won’t check the air duct? Even I know that, and I’m just an average guy, not trained in police procedures.
RANDOM ACT OF VIOLENCE AGAINST A BOOM BOX! (with fond apologies to badmovies.org)

In any case, Phreak realizes how monumentally stupid Joey is being, and they both run as the Secret Service agents chase them. Hiding the disk only helps on a short-term level; he gets busted, and makes a call to Burn. Burn gets the disk, gives Crash a copy to keep, for their lawyers, and then sets in with Nikon and Cereal to figure out what the deal is with it. The Plague threatens Crash’s mother, and thereby gets the copy of the disk. This is yet another odd use of a skateboard for no discernible reason. I mean, why have a limo if… Okay, let it go, let it go.

Crash goes to tell his friends the situation, and it’s there that they find out he was Zero Cool. It makes a good impression, gives us some interesting lines and reactions, but also complicates things. Then he gets involved in figuring out what the program does, and then they go on a mission to find out the truth. Not exactly X-Files, mind you, but truth enough. In the course of this, they must raise a hacker army, mount an assault from the depths of Grand Central Station, and the Plague and his tech crew must try to defend the Gibson supercomputer (rather than take a real name, like Cray, they went for the cyberpunk reference), which is all neon-lit and very artistic. Naturally, no real computer would look like that; it’s too power inefficient, too fragile, too spaced out. The key to speed in a computer is putting the components close together; that’s the whole point of microchips, after all. If you’ve got lots of components, then sure, you’re going to take up some space, but what’s the point of spreading it around like that? Wait, what if they were using a laser matrix to perform the CPU calculations? Light and a photo-reactive surface to change binary states, making the machine into an optical processor. That could account for the… no, wait, what am I thinking? Something that revolutionary would be more of a focus of the movie, and they really don’t have the budget for that, they spent the last of it on rotating telephone booths. You’ll have to see the movie for that one.

It’s an American movie, so everything ends well enough. Just as the opening started with police, the closing ends with an underwater make-out scene. Don’t you just love unity in theme? Actually, one of my coworkers cited that pool scene as the first time they realized why people consider Angelina Jolie attractive. Another of my good friends had a similar revelation regarding Uma Thurman in her role in Pulp Fiction. I guess it’s just that people’s tastes are so diverse, what seems obvious to me may not occur to others until they see a particular context, to put it in more general terms. In fact, this whole movie may be a case study of that phenomenon. Of course, I’m not sure what context in which to show the movie so that my friends and family will understand why I like it.
“I just had a vision of my future husband… and he’s old with bad teeth…”

The major breakthrough in this film is, of course, in taking an essentially static activity and turning it into a dynamic experience. At one level, the solution is the same as in other films, when you need to represent a length of time passing (i.e. training or studying, etc.). Naturally, you turn to our old friend, the montage. In this film, it’s especially effective because the peppy techno music reinforces the computer and electronic themes (as opposed to “Eye of the Tiger,” which is not necessarily intrinsic to boxing, nor is boxing intrinsic to power guitar rock songs), but Softley gives the montages the extra twist to make them just a bit more artistic than they really have to be. This is part of what sells the movie, and part of what makes hacking seem so cool (besides the innate draw of simply knowing new things).

Well, that, and they also made a good choice of portraying the general unkemptness of hackers as more of an immunity to taste in clothing. So many of the fashion mistakes perpetrated on these characters are a welcome alternative to the potential for more realistic ugliness. At least these hackers bother to bathe regularly (and are shown doing so with surprising regularity).

I started off intending to give this movie several Hoffs, but I realized that it has creative cinematography, attractive and interesting stars (Lillard excepted), a number of genuine laughs and excellent lines, and while the broader sweeps of the lightweight plot might be expected, it does surprise you in the details. It is actually a significantly better movie than most of the crap I’ve been subjected to, lately. As a result, I had to scale back my score. This is not to say the movie doesn’t have certain issues, or that it might be mistaken for flawless. However, if you’re in the mood for something light and entertaining and modern, without being an outright comedy, this is probably a good movie for you.

These are the times of which to cherish...

- Angelina Jolie, in the first role I can recall seeing her, as a neo-punk hacker vixen. I’m a big one for eyes, and hers are just… well, I’m hardly the one with the unique reaction, so no need to explain. I would heartily recommend more dream-sequences like these, though, in future movies. In point of fact, however, Jolie was only in 2 movies previously, Lookin' to Get Out when she was 7 years old, and Cyborg 2. Ah, Cyborg 2

- Matthew Lillard waving his freak flag high. Here is the purest expression of the manic crack-brained oddity that is so often hinted at in other roles I’ve seen him in (have yet to see SLC Punk, though I want to do so soon). It always seems like the wild-eyed coke-monkey is never too far from the front of his brain, and damn it, if you’re going to have an annoying young male movie star, I’d prefer it that way. The other extreme is to be so likable and friendly that you could be in just about anything and get away clean, like Freddie Prinze, Jr. The two of them were together in that fighter game movie, Wing Commander, the Street Fighter of the star-fighter jock movies. Always meant to see that, but Battlefield: Earth was higher on the list. Anyway, point being, you can remember that Lillard was in WC, but it’s harder to remember that Prinze was in there. Is there some kind of movie-star Arcane rating going on there? Sorry, that was a role-playing game reference; man, I’m an uber-geek.

- The prep scenes leading up to their competition, hassling the Man. In particular, when Crash quick-draws computer diskettes in front of the mirror. “You talkin’ to me?” The whole montage is smart and funny, though, so it all deserves mention.

- All the music videos… I’m sorry, I mean montages. Necessary, illustrative montages. Yeah.

- The way almost all the parents were Charlie Browned out. Crash’s mom is a plot point all by herself (Dad is only shown in the flashback opening), Joey’s mom serves to keep Joey contained until it’s dramatically necessary to let him free, and Phreak’s mom is used to deliver a gag. Other than that, parents are sometimes mentioned but never shown. It fits with the whole “ignored kids turned to computer rebellion” thing. Please note that it’s only moms shown, no dads, and all the moms appear to be computer-illiterate but caring and involved in their children’s lives. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, or realistic or not. It depends on the kind of statement Softley is intending, I suppose.

What kind of evidence-gathering organization would a) not notice someone ditching potentially important items, and b) not do a thorough search of the surrounding area in case something was ditched? You hear of stories where the important clue was found because the police searched every trash can in a two-block radius. I’m sorry, I was being carried along by the panache of the movie, but ended up balking at this one little piece they wanted us to swallow.

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